Captain Hill & the Mary Griswold

The areas of the Pistakee Lake & Fox Lake has always been some of the most picturesque in the state. As McHenry County became more settled, the area became a large travel destination. By the 1880s, people from all over were traveling to the lakes for scenic tours, hunting, fishing and many other activities. The main way to get up to the area was by team (horses) or on foot. With the invention of the steamship, boats could travel with or against the current of the river making travel faster and more enjoyable. Taking advantage of this new mode of transportation was an English immigrant named, Walter Hill. Born in 1839, Hill apprenticed as a machinist and a millwright before immigrating to the United States in 1876. He spent his first two years in Chicago working as a marine engineer. He then started his first boat in Indiana before coming to McHenry in 1878 with the steamer, John S. Field. The Field was described as being 30 feet long and 12 feet wide, with a stern wheel. It was thought to be a “trim little craft.” Eventually, it was fitted with a sickle bar and loaned out to Ice Companies to cut weeds in ponds that would be used for collecting ice.

Advertisement In The McHenry Plaindealer From July 7, 1880 Announcing Sunday Excursions.

The Mary Griswold was built in 1879 and was thought to be the first commercial steamer in the summer resort district. It was constructed by James Perry, Alfred Martin and Edwin Griswold as was named after one of Griswold’s daughters. The first year the ship was used it was a commercial success, however it was completed somewhat late, so it never really felt totally finished. At the start of the 1879 boating season, Walter Hill leased the boat and immediately began making improvements. He polished and furnished the cabin and installed an upright boiler that would run more efficiently.  Depending on the year and weather conditions, the Mary Griswold would make excursions from weekly to daily. The Mary Griswold was said to hold anywhere from 80 – 120 passengers, with 15 people being the minimum for Captain Hill to make the trip.

Picture From Plaindealer Article Covering The Mary Griswold On Aug 20, 1936.

Business was going well so Walter Hill began to buy more steamers to expand on his business. At some point he added the Lotus to his fleet, which he then sold in 1884. In 1886, he purchased the Mamie, a smaller vessel that held about 20 passengers. In the spring of 1887, he had the Grayling constructed, which was called “model of beauty” and an excellent addition to the Fox River fleet. However, despite all of its promise, 1887 didn’t turn out to be that great of a year for Captain Hill. That spring,the Captain and his family were living most of the year in Fox Lake at the Lehman property. During the summer of 1887, there was drought that caused the level of the Fox River to dip so low that the steamers couldn’t travel on it. There was even a temporary dam built so that the river level would rise. This had to be tough on finances. Then in November, Captain Hill was badly burned by steam in an accident. Six years later, he sold the Mary Griswold and went into retirement, moving to Chicago. Whether he retired voluntarily or due to injuries sustained in the accident, is hard to determine. Captain Hill would live in Chicago with his family until his death in August 1895. As for the Mary Griswold, the last note of her was a for sale ad repeatedly placed in the Plaindealer throughout 1892. The last couple noted they were willing to sell at 1/3 of value of the ship.


  • “Quarter of a Century” The McHenry Plaindealer. 7 Sep 1911, 10. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Quarter of a Century” The McHenry Plaindealer. 25 Feb 1909, 8. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Quarter of a Century” The McHenry Plaindealer. 11 Jul 1912, 4. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Quarter of a Century” The McHenry Plaindealer. 19 Jan 1905, 1. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Capt. Hill Burned” The McHenry Plaindealer. 16 Nov 1887, 5. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Grand Steamboat Excursion” The McHenry Plaindealer. 5 Aug 1885, 4. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “Through the Efforts of Captain Hill” The McHenry Plaindealer. 26 May 1886, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Forth of July at Fox Lake” The McHenry Plaindealer. 30 Jun 1880, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “For Sale: Lotus” The McHenry Plaindealer. 2 Apr 1884, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Mary Griswold Leased” The McHenry Plaindealer. 28 Jan 1880, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Captain Hill At Work” The McHenry Plaindealer. 2 Mar 1887, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Captain Hill Buys Mamie” The McHenry Plaindealer. 27 Jan 1886, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “To The Lotus Beds” The McHenry Plaindealer. 4 Aug 1880, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Sunday Excursions” The McHenry Plaindealer. 7 Jul 1880, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “McHenry: Her Businesses and Business Men” The McHenry Plaindealer. 6 Apr 1887, 1. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Annual Circular No. 9” The McHenry Plaindealer. 16 Mar 1887, 5. Web. 31 Mar 2020.
  • “Shedd & Co., the Ice Men” The McHenry Plaindealer. 27 Nov 1878, 5. Web. 14 May 2020.
  • “Little Steamer John S. Field” The McHenry Plaindealer. 20 Jun 1929, 7. Web. 1 Apr 2020.
  • “James Perry Obit” The McHenry Plaindealer. 4 Jun 1925, 1. Web. 30 Mar 2020.